Jerry Hill’s first day of work at Yale was Veterans Day of 1991. There was no ceremony — which was a change for Hill, who stepped into his new role as Yale’s director of physical plant after 21 years in the Navy Civil Engineer Corps.
But nine years later, Hill took over as Yale’s ROTC advisor and created a ceremony, now an annual tradition held on Beinecke Plaza, before a monument that memorializes not only the Yalies who served in the armed forces, but also an era when military service was a norm, not a rare endeavor.
While Yale was once a veritable military training ground, with nearly half its students enrolled in the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program during the Korean War, Hill’s experience is emblematic of the change that has occurred on campus. Yale’s faculty banned ROTC on campus in 1969 amid the unpopular Vietnam War, and only a small handful of Yalies each year participate in ROTC programs, which are now held off campus. Opposition to the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy — which bans gays from serving openly in the military — is often cited as the main reason for keeping ROTC banned, but last month President Barack Obama declared his intention to end the policy.
The move could have ramifications at Yale, University Secretary Linda Lorimer said Sunday night.
“If the government changes its stance on the ability of young people or any people to serve their nation regardless of sexual orientation, then we will be eager to pursue opportunities of having an ROTC unit on campus,” she said. “As soon as the federal government changes its posture, I have no doubt that the Yale administration will want to pursue the option for having a ROTC unit at Yale.”
Currently, only two Yale students are enrolled in ROTC, and Hill said in an interview earlier this month that he was not sure if the military would be interested in returning here because of a lack of student interest.
“It’s a supply and demand thing,” Hill said. “The services are going to put their resources where they think they can get the most young lieutenants for all the money they spend. And I don’t think we have the demand here. It’s very regrettable.”
A WAVERING HISTORY
When the ROTC program was started at colleges during WWI, Yale was one of the first schools to host the program.
During the Korean War, almost half of Yale’s undergraduates were enrolled in ROTC, and many professors added military ranks to their titles. In the late 1960s, with the protests against the Vietnam War, ROTC became unpopular on many college campuses and was banned from many colleges, including Yale, in 1969. While anti-military sentiment pervaded at Yale, the faculty banned ROTC, officially citing the program’s vocational nature and its regulations for courses, which infringe on Yale’s academic independence. For instance, ROTC courses taught by military officials would have to be given Yale academic credits and some of the military instructors would have to be given faculty appointments.
Hill, a student at Tulane University in the late 1960s, remembered similar anti-military sentiments when he was at Berkeley studying civil engineering for the Navy.
“They asked us to be there at six in the morning in uniform, and we had to be off campus by 6:30 because they didn’t want us to be seen around in uniform,” he said. A year after he left, protesters set fire to the ROTC building.
But while anti-military sentiments raged at Yale and at colleges across the country in the 1960s and ’70s, the relationship between Yale and ROTC have been improving.
Hill said he is grateful to University President Richard Levin, whom he described as very accommodating to the ROTC students. The University pays for the commissioning ceremony, the rental cars and even the parking fees at the University of Connecticut, where students participate in the Air Force ROTC program.
This year, the two ROTC students have conflicts that interfere with the training at the UConn campus in Storrs on Thursday afternoon. As a result, a major comes up to Yale every Friday and teaches the two in a classroom, which is permitted since ROTC is now a registered student organization.
“It’s good that we’ve come this far, but it would be great if we had 40 or 50 guys here on ROTC,” Hill said.
Lorimer said she admires students who surmount the logistical hurtles of participating in ROTC.
“I, like many, am eager to provide opportunities for Yale students who want to serve their nation to pursue their education at Yale and take the necessary ROTC preparation,” she said. “Obviously it would be easier if it could occur closer to campus or on campus, but I have been enormously inspired by the Yale students who pursue the demanding program of Yale education and participate in the ROTC program.”
While Hill said the inconveniences of Yale’s ROTC program could deter potential students, he said the only way to expand the program is at the high school counselor level. If counselors are aware of and recommend the program to applicants, Hill said, more students might start enrolling in it.
JUST THE TWO OF US
Still, in its current state, the ROTC functions much like a side project for Hill to manage.
Rising from his role as the director of physical plant, Hill is now the director of engineering for the facilities department, which involves running in-house engineering and reviewing drawings and specifications of new buildings. His ROTC work occupies a strange sphere at Yale, as he oversees a program that no longer officially exists. Hill speaks proudly of the few students who he works with, and he describes his ROTC work as the most meaningful part of his job, even though it takes up a relatively small amount of his time.
“ROTC is the most fun I have here at Yale,” Hill said. “They’re good kids, they’re great kids, and I wish there were more of them.”
Managing ROTC primarily involves arranging transportation for students so that they can get to training. Hill makes sure that students are provided with rental cars free of charge to drive to Sacred Heart University for Army training or to the University of Connecticut in Storrs for Air Force training, which is almost an hour and a half away.
Hill also serves as a contact person between the University and the military and arranges the commissioning ceremony in May.
Connecticut has Army and Air Force ROTC, but no Navy units. Both of Yale’s ROTC students are currently juniors in Air Force ROTC, and Hill says that he cannot recall more than five students being enrolled at any given time during his tenure as adviser.
ROTC student John Swisher ’11 said he appreciates how far Yale goes out of its way to accommodate the ROTC program.
“It’s really incredible that it’s only the two of us,” Swisher said. “If Yale wanted to they could ignore it.”
But Yale students do not receive credit for their ROTC courses, some of which relate to management and engineering, since the program is not officially recognized by Yale, noted David Bookstaber ’99, who went through ROTC as a student and is a member of Advocates for Yale ROTC, which seeks to bring back an official ROTC program to Yale’s campus.
He said he believes “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is the “prevailing excuse” for the University not to bring back the program. He said Sunday night that he doubts that Yale will restore full standing and full academic credit to ROTC courses even if “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is repealed. He added that the University does all it can to accommodate the program within the constraint of there being no nearby ROTC campus.
Still, Hill, Bookstaber and Swisher all agreed that Yale works hard to accommodate the ROTC students, who serve as a small remnant of Yale’s military past.
Yale is by no means alone in its limited ROTC program; Harvard, Columbia and Brown universities also banned it in the Vietnam era. Among those schools, Yale is unique in having a University employee serve as an advisor to ROTC students.
Columbia has approximately nine or 10 students in ROTC at any given time, according to Ted Graske, Columbia Alliance for ROTC Chairman. Harvard has around 30 students at any given time, according to Michael Segal, a leader of the National Advocates for ROTC. Brown currently has no students enrolled in ROTC.
Segal said these universities have host ROTC campuses nearby, whereas he said Yale’s long commute turns away some ROTC students. He said the fact that some Yalies choose to pursue ROTC anyway “shows an incredible amount of determination on the part of those students.”
Hill said he yearns for the day when Yale will regain the large ROTC presence it once had, which he said would bring an added dimension of diversity to campus. He also said greater participation in ROTC at Yale would bring a valuable kind of diversity to the military.
“It’s really a shame at this time in our history when we need really thoughtful and officers with different opinions in the military, that we don’t have enough Ivy League-trained officers,” he said.
It is this belief in making military training available to Yale students that led him to his current post.
Hill’s tenure has been marked by a favorable relationship between Yale and ROTC. Swisher said he has gotten a lot of support from the community at Yale. At a campus with such a small ROTC presence, he has also encountered some confusion.
“There have been a couple of people who have come up to me while I’m in uniform to ask me if I’m in a play,” he said.